IT’S been nicknamed the “Facebook for criminals” where inmates can share personal details and argue their innocence.
The controversial iExpress website, which posts photos and information on behalf of prisoners, and has been locked in a battle with South Australia’s Department of Correctional Services for more than a year.
The appearance of murderer Jean Eric Gassy on the site has led to renewed calls for its closure.
Gassy killed his former boss, head of South Australia’s government mental health services Margaret Tobin, at her workplace in 2002.
“We’ve condemned this strongly so many times,” a Correctional Services spokesman told news.com.au. “We don’t condone it. It’s an affront and an offence to victims of rape and murder to allow these people to seek pen-pals. They’re essentially enabling convicted rapists and murderers to be on a dating site.”
But Justice Action, an organisation made up of former inmates that runs the “interactive email system”, insists what it is doing is both legal and has a positive effect.
“Prisoners are isolated in a whole range of different ways,” its founder Brett Collins, a former bank robber, told news.com.au. “There are benefits to internet access, for the family and the authorities as well.”
MEET THE INMATES
Hundreds of prisoners in Australia and New Zealand have signed up with Justice Action, some creating a bio with photos and regular updates, and others simply registering an email address. Here are just a few:
Peter Copeland, convicted in South Australia of killing a man for touching his genitalia, writes about his search for long-lost family members and about how he turned to drugs after he was abused as a child.
Chris Bentley, locked up in a maximum security facility in Western Australia, writes about philosophers Socrates and Michel Foucault, and expresses his desire to make connections. “In order to heal you must understand that the person or persons that have caused your suffering did not know you as you are,” he writes.
Bentley was convicted of raping and robbing a woman at knifepoint and kidnapping a 17-year-old girl.
Daniel Miles, an inmate at the Goulburn correctional centre in NSW, writes about his theological studies and interest in music and invites people to email him. “I have tried to define myself as someone who can be known as more than just some guy who committed a couple of wicked acts when he was younger,” he adds.
Miles killed his girlfriend Donna Newsland in 1990, when he was 18, and then fled jail and murdered Yolanda Michael, 29, who had befriended him while he was locked up.
Robert James Andrews, incarcerated at Port Lincoln Prison, talks about his horse racing past and writes: “I have been totally let down by the ‘Criminal Justice System’, as there has been a ‘Miscarriage of Justice’ in my case and my trial was unfair.”
He is serving a life sentence for strangling and killing his girlfriend in 1994 because she wouldn’t have sex with him.
Darin Clare, who was sentenced to life in prison for burning his neighbour to death, describes himself as single and looking for anyone “willing to have a yarn.”
He summarises: “Grew up in Melbourne, did an automotive machining apprenticeship when I was 19, got the travel bug around 25 and got myself into deep s**t at 37.”
Gary Playford, imprisoned in Queensland, writes that the facts of his case should have resulted in a self-defence or manslaughter ruling “but things don’t always go your way.”
“Australia, a free country, as long as you are doing exactly as you are told and believe the government has your best interests at heart. I DON’T!!”
In 2012, Playford and accomplice Trevor Griffiths were convicted of shooting two men to death during a fake drug deal.
Last April, Julian Knight made headlines for publishing a 22-page ‘Petition of Mercy’ on the site, along with his poetry and background on his case.
The Nazi-obsessed inmate blamed the Australian Army for his crimes, claiming diminished responsibility on the basis of his “bastardisation” at Duntroon Military College.
He was found guilty on seven counts of murder and 46 counts of attempted murder in the 1987 Hoddle Street massacre in Melbourne.
SHOULD PRISONERS BE ONLINE?
At present, the Alexander Maconochie Centre in the ACT is the only jail where prisoners have internet access — through computers in cells that are linked to safe servers.
For others, Justice Action print out emails to send to inmates and upload their written letters and photos, carefully monitoring for any negative comment about victims.
“It’s a simple, efficient way to communicate, with families, the ombudsman, legal aid, education facilities and medical services,” said Mr Collins. “There’s a permanent record of what was sent so you can go back over and search it.
“What you have is sealed access, it’s the way of the future. The prison department is inherently conservative. People can protest their innocence, that’s a legal entitlement.”
But Correctional Services argues that this correspondence could contain prejudicial material.
“It’s really hard to stop. We can’t monitor every piece of correspondence. We do it targeted on evidence and suspicion.
“If a church group or welfare organization writes to a prisoner to offer support, we encourage that. It’s case by case. Volunteers know there are people in prison who are lonely.
“They’re being given a platform to tell us their side, but as chief executive David Brown said in a letter to Justice Action last year ‘…allowing convicted murderers and rapists to publicly display detailed accounts of their offending behaviour from their perspective, without consideration to the perspectives of their victims, or indeed the official record of agreed facts represents an affront to their victims and all victims of crime.’
“We’re vehemently against it.”
Criminologist Clarke Jones told news.com.au that it was good for inmates’ rehabilitation if they are able to contact the outside world. “Prisoners are stripped of their identity, they lose their sense of self, this sort of communication is a really positive thing.
“It’s a fine line, if they’re connected to hardened crooks, that security aspect, if they’re revealing the roster of guards, security measures. You be crazy not to monitor it.”
Courtesy of News.com.au By Emma Reynolds